The tale of Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is an old one. It is a tale of faith and magic; of intrigue and integrity; loyalty and betrayal; of falling from grace and the possibility of redemption. At its heart it is the story of Man.
Camelot, the Lerner & Lowe Broadway musical based on T.H. White’s bestseller, The Once And Future King, set the legend to music, giving us knights in shining armor and fair damsels who did not appear to be in much distress. The familiar story centers around the betrothal and marriage of young King Arthur to the lovely, but wild and headstrong Guenevere. Arthur is a good king, well trained by the mage, Merlyn. He establishes a kingdom ruled by law and justice, embodied by the celebrated Round Table.
Arthur’s fame grows, drawing knights from as far as France, including the insufferably superior Lancelot du Luc. Guenevere takes an instant dislike to the young knight, but eventually is drawn to him, as he is to her. It is a tragic love affair. Both love and respect Arthur but are unable to control their passions. Although Arthur is aware of their feelings, he submerges his passions, determined to be a ‘civilized’ man.
The big monkey wrench in the plot comes with the introduction of Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son, who wishes nothing more than the overthrow of all things good. He uncovers Lancelot and Guenevere’s tryst and charges them with treason, an offense punishable by death. Lancelot escapes and later returns to rescue Guenevere, resulting in war between France and England.
In the end Guenevere enters a convent, Lancelot enters a self-imposed exile, and Arthur is left alone. But there is yet a hope – a young boy who has heard of the Round Table and wishes to be a knight, to uphold truth and justice. Arthur is vindicated in his belief in the innate goodness of man.
The Rep’s version of Camelot strips the tale of its familiar setting. There are no knights in armor, no ladies in wimpoles. Instead director David Grapes chooses a time closer to the actual events portrayed, namely the sixth century AD. In Grapes version, the world is raw and wild, invested with magic and wonder, and peopled by a Celtic warrior race. Arthur, played by Christian Whelan, is a young idealist who forces his people into the mold of civilization by the sheer force of his will.
Whelan endows Arthur with youthful enthusiasm that gradually matures to a brooding dignity. Throughout the play you are convinced that Arthur is a good man, a good husband, a good friend, and a good king. He is the kind of guy you would want to hang around. His struggles are genuine, his triumphs joyful, and his betrayal palpable. You leave wishing there was something you could have done to save him from his fate.
Erin Cottrell plays Guenevere with reckless abandon. Young Guenevere is pagan to the core, and Ms. Cottrell endows her with a playful sensuality that at times borders on bloodlust. She revels in the possibility of countries going to war over her. She leads her ladies in the maypole dance celebrating the “Lusty Month of May,” and she sneers at Lancelot’s ‘Christian’ virtues. Ms. Cottrell’s Guenevere is a woman ruled by passion.
Henry Haggard’s portrayal of Merlyn was stunning. On stage virtually the entire play, Haggard’s Merlyn acted as narrator, instigator, mentor, and friend. He brought the light and the darkness, read the past and remembered the future, set events into motion, and was overcome by events. While Haggard has been seen frequently on Nashville stages, most notably in Twelve Angry Men and Romeo and Juliet, Merlyn is undoubtedly his finest performance to date.
Perhaps the most intriguing performance of the night was delivered by Robert Bartley in the role of Mordred, Arthur’s bastard son. Mordred is a wounded soul, deprived of a father’s love, and bent on revenge. He is brooding, cunning, magnetic, and oh yes, evil. Very evil. Bartley plays him with gleeful pathos.
Camelot is a play that stands on its own. That it is also blessed with some great music is just another plus. Classics like How To Handle A Woman, If Ever I Would Leave You, and of course the joyous title song, Camelot are delivered with style and emotion by an excellent cast.
Camelot is presented by Tennessee Repertory Theatre at TPAC’s Polk Theatre November 29 – December 22, 2000.